The Third Asma Jahangir Conference last weekend generated a lot of debate and pointing fingers from the ruling PTI government. The conference was put together as a result of months of voluntary work by the Conference Committee setting out a wide agenda on critical areas of human rights currently under challenge in Pakistan. The Asma Jahangir Conference was co-organized by the Asma Jahangir Foundation along with the Pakistan Bar Council and the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. There were 21 sessions in total addressing the following areas: The Right to Dissent, The Afghan Crisis and its Impact, Conflict in Kashmir: bypassing Kashmiris, No Justice in Justifying: Violence Against Women, Rights of the Child, Freedom of Religion and Belief, State of the Economy, and Challenges to Restoring Democracy in Pakistan.
Mr. Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition party PML-N, addressed the closing speech of the conference keeping in tradition with events organized by bar councils where leaders of opposition parties are invited to speak. Mr. Bilawal Bhutto, Chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, along with Ms. Shirin Mazari, Minister for Human Rights, delivered the closing speeches of the First Asma Jahangir Conference in 2018, and former Prime Minister of the Pakistan People’s Party, Mr. Yousaf Raza Gilani, delivered the closing speech of the Second Asma Jahangir Conference in 2019. All three conferences provided a platform for stakeholders, including politicians from all major and regional parties, to speak openly about issues impacting the rule of law and protection of fundamental freedoms. The AJ Foundation vehemently rejects claims that the conference furthered any partisan agenda and notes that no such allegations were made at earlier conferences when Mr. Bilawal Bhutto and Mr. Yousaf Raza Gillani delivered the closing address. The AJ Foundation also wishes to bring on record that several prominent members of the ruling PTI party were invited to all three conferences, many of whom spoke at all three conferences, and others who declined the invitation. The AJ Foundation along with its partners, the Supreme Court Bar Association, and the Pakistan Bar Council, believe that leaders of opposition parties, big and small, should be invited to speak, and freedom of expression, even where it involves true but uncomfortable conversations, is the cornerstone of democracy.
The AJ Foundation reiterates that no one was invited to speak at the conference in violation of any law. Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) has banned certain categories of individuals from being broadcasted on television, no such prohibition is placed on these individuals addressing public gatherings in general. Indeed, former Prime Minister, Mr. Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, has addressed gatherings previously and it is entirely regrettable not to say embarrassing, that internet cables were disabled to black out his speech. This act in itself is an indication of the state of freedom of expression in the current regime where Pakistan is ranked as 145 out of 180 countries. It is also worth mentioning that the current regime has allowed airing of interviews of Mr. Ishaq Dar and former General Musharraf even though both have been declared absconders by courts in Pakistan. In contrast, it is the view of large segments of the legal community that Mr. Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s conviction was politically motivated, he was not provided legal due process and more recent events have sadly caused a further shakeup in the institutions of Pakistan. By picking on conferences and personalities, the ruling regime is diverting attention from the real threat to institutions, the state of the economy and freedom of expression in the country.
The hundreds of hours of voluntary work to put together this event is a testament to the commitment of the AJ Foundation, AGHS Legal Aid Cell and other members of civil society who formed part of the conference committee, to the rule of law and democracy. AJ Foundation stands firmly with civil society in Pakistan which remains steadfast in its commitment to universal principles of human rights without fear or favour. Our position remains that we will not follow vendettas of political parties when inviting speakers, and the AJ Conference will remain an open and uncensored platform for diverse voices across the political spectrum. It is the unanimous position of almost all bar councils that every person, including an absconder, has the right to freedom of expression and this right is enshrined in our constitution. To brand the event as engaging in party politics is disappointing given no such claims were made at previous conferences where leaders of the opposition party were delivering the closing address. It is also naïve and misleading to term the event as “political” given any discussion on human rights, democratic freedoms and the rule of law is meaningless without the engagement of political personalities. Equally it is impossible to engage in a debate on the rule of law and judicial accountability without the presence of the judiciary.
The format of the conference this year has remained the same as every other year where the chief guest for the opening ceremony is the Chief Justice of Pakistan along with other Honourable Judges. The closing ceremony of the second day is presided over by policymakers and leaders of the main opposition parties which is befitting given the purpose of the conference is to find solutions to real challenges rather than simply echo the sentiments of whichever party is in power at the time. Indeed, the reception of an event that is uncensored and is widely attended by opinion makers from across the spectrum, confirms the state of our democratic freedoms. We hope to keep this format alive for all stakeholders and leaders of opposition parties in the future, regardless of partisan politics. The sign of a true democracy is where the ruling party provides space to opposition parties to share their narrative, and people are not only able to exercise their right to freely express themselves but also have the choice to hear differing narratives.
We are particularly indebted to the Honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Gulzar Ahmad, and other Honourable judges who graced the occasion and enriched our conference with their presence and insight. We are also indebted to the over 160 speakers who are known experts in their own fields and the over 3000 participants. The impressive turnout was a result of the inclusive and uncensored agenda, the observers included 600 lawyers with approximately 50 office bearers of the Bar, five former Presidents of the Supreme Court Bar Association and High Court Bar Associations and furthermore, participants included sitting members of the Pakistan Bar Council and the provincial Bar Councils, 300 members of civil society organisations, 400 students and 100 women lawyers who had travelled form Quetta, Interior Sindh and Karachi especially to attend the event. The Asma Jahangir Conference has maintained itself as the largest human rights and legal conference in Pakistan and this year was no different. For this reason, it is often referred to as the People’s Assembly.